By Kenya Confidential Political Editor, Nairobi – June 5, 2020
Trump held the Bible like a baby holding a spoon for the first time – unsure which end is which
During dark era of slavery in America, it was illegal for Africans to read any book other than the Bible. Anyone caught reading philosophy, science, governance, history, economics or any other genre of literature, faced the death penalty.
Why was that so?
The slave masters understood that the Bible was a tool to limit the thinking of black Africans and to keep them perpetually subservient. They knew that to keep them in servitude they had to make them accept their lot as the will of God and have them thinking about the end of days, these things will keep them in perpetual servitude.
They refused to give them anything good but they gave them Christianity and the Bible. The colonial masters in Africa did the same. The Bible was the only book of importance to the “primitive pagans” who needed to be converted to Christianity.
History repeated itself this week when US President Donald Trump delivered an address in which he threatened military action on the nation to crush protesting African Americans. Then he walked to the nearby St John’s Episcopal Church to pose with a Bible.
Yes, Trump held the Bible like a baby holding a spoon for the first time – unsure which end is which – but the real problem was the complete disconnection between the text in his hand and the force, both verbally threatened and actually used, to clear the way for his stunt.
Tear gas and militarised police cleared crowds, including some of the church’s own clergy from its grounds, in order for Trump to pose in front of the church – all alone. All that was going in his mind was how powerful he is.
Over five hundred years later, the descendants of the slaves who were whipped, tortured, raped and murdered, now confess implicit confidence in the same Bible. (a book hurriedly put together by Emperor Constantine in 325 AD when he decreed Christianity – an infusion of Roman paganism, Greek and Egyptian mythology” as the new State religion and his troops would violently convert most of the world’s populations to this newly formed order by force and through violence. They called themselves the crusaders.
The Bible was central to the success of the trans Atlantic slavery. On a trip to Cape Coast in Ghana 2010, it was obvious the role Christianity played in slavery. Slaves were first baptized and letters (signifyng their new names such as John, Peter, Isaac and other Christian names) engraved with hot metal on their backs.
This was even before they learnt a single word in English. While in chains, blood dripping from all over their bodies, they recited the Nicean creed, not knowing the meaning.
Verses like: Ephesians 6:5 “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” lent divine credence to the predicament of slaves and consigned them to perpetual slavery. Revolting against the oppressors, was a direct rejection of God – so they were made to believe.
Today, many Africans know the Bible from the beginning to the end but they know little about themselves or ideas that can improve their lives. They can feel Jesus in their spirits and they are absolutely sure that Christianity is the only true religion.
They are waiting for an apocalyptic climax to humanity where a blue eyed, blonde haired Caucasian saviour would appear from the sky at the sound of a trumpet, to save them from debilitating poverty, a dysfunctional system, diseases and imbecility. 500 years later, Africans are still languishing in profuse ignorance.
Irreparable damage has been done on people whose great grandparents were hunted down like game for sport. Slave owners and prospectors would get licences to kill Africans like wild antelopes.
In the words of the late scholar Dr. Henrik Clark; “To control a people, you must first control what they think about themselves and how they regard their history and by culture. And when your conqueror makes you ashamed of your culture and history, he needs no prison walls and chains to hold you”.
While Christian outrage at Trump’s hypocrisy is genuine, for reasons that several Christian leaders have elegantly articulated, it’s may be worth asking: Did Trump do anything new? Has he done anything that powerful “Christian” leaders haven’t done for centuries?
The answer is no.
Co-opting Christianity in the service of power is almost as old as Christianity itself. In the culture war raging in America, the very president who has stoked the flames of racism and white supremacy effectively claimed God is on his side. It is deeply offensive, but it is not new.
In the early fourth century CE, Flavius Valerius Constantine would defeat his brother-in-law, Maxentius, in a battle for control of the Roman Empire. His victory would solidify him as emperor of a vast western empire.
The legend goes that Constantine had a vision before the battle on Milvian Bridge: he saw a cross of light in the sky and heard a voice that said, “in this sign, conquer”. The next morning, Constantine ordered his soldiers to paint crosses on their shields. They marched into battle as the first cross-bearing “Christian” soldiers. When Constantine won, he would attribute his victory to the God of the Christians.
While historians are quick to point out that this “conversion” of Constantine is as much myth as reality, and may have been motivated by either political expediency or sheer superstition, it marked a turning point for Christianity. The new emperor’s adoption of the cross transformed a persecuted, minority sect into a legitimate religion and, eventually, the official state religion.
The use of propaganda and standardised imagery was not new for the Roman Empire. Indeed, they were already experts in using imagery to communicate dominance, power and a certain worldview.
The new element in 312 CE was the type of imagery; Christian instead of pagan, a cross representing the death and resurrection of Jesus instead of a god, goddess or symbol from the Roman Pantheon.
We have been left with a legacy in Western Christianity of powerful rulers claiming God for their cause. The Crusaders rode out to fight Muslims with chests and shields adorned with the sign of the cross, popes would wield more power than kings, and God’s name would be invoked in war after war.
Photoshopped images of Hitler with a Bible started to circulate this week following Trump’s stunt. Evidence already exists for the casual way in which Hitler, too, co-opted Christianity for his cause. A 1930s propaganda book titled Hitler as No One Knows Him contains numerous photographs of Hitler designed to make him likeable.
One of them has him leaving a church, implying his Christian faith and basic decency, suggesting he is a good Christian just like so many of those who were deceived by his politics and drafted to his cause. The Deputy President in Kenya falls in that category of professing Christian faith in a manner many say is intended to hoodwink Kenyans.
Closer to home, the Bible arrived on the shores of Africa in the hands of those who would colonise this land through violence and domination. Its diverse history here has been documented as discovery of the Dark Continent. But the Bible was, at least superficially, synonymous with white culture and power. It would be (mis)used to justify colonisation in Australia just as it was to argue for apartheid in South Africa.
The co-option of Christian symbols by Western Christian empires has meant its core symbols have often been inverted in meaning. The great irony is that the cross worn as a symbol of power and victory by imperial soldiers was first the symbol of the unjust death of Jesus, a brown-skinned Jew killed by the Roman State. It was a shameful symbol in that culture, an image for a humiliating public death.
The Bible, wielded by Trump and others like him, likewise did not begin its life as the text of the victor. Had Trump read the text he held, he would have found a story of liberation for slaves, a divine preference for the poor, a demand of justice for the marginalised, a cry of lament from those who grieve, and a damning critique of any empire that oppressed its people.
What Trump did was not new. But perhaps it offended many because his delivery was so unsophisticated, an insult to intelligence for its lack of pretence at genuine faith. He didn’t even attempt to enter the church and pray nor open the Bible and read it.
Both church and Bible were mere backdrops, doing the rhetorical work Trump needed in signalling his virtue and values to his base. Values, to be clear, that are antithetical to both the Church building and the Holy book in his hand.
Kenya’s founding father Mzee Jomo Kenyatta gave Christianity and the Bible a very suitable narrative.
“When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.” he said.